In this chapter I aim to provide an account
of Marx’s concept of alienation and to critically engage with his theory to
determine it’s significance, I will do this using contemporary scholarly
accounts and Marx’s own writings on alienation. Alienation itself has a few
definitions but I believe it useful to establish a broad understanding of the
concept before critically engaging with Marx’s account. A general definition
suggests alienation to be a state or experience of being estranged.1
In existentialism it is primarily used to refer to a psychological, perhaps
even spiritual, kind of malaise, which is pervasive in modern society but not
specific to it.2
This corroborates with the psychiatry definition which proposes that alienation
is a state of depersonalization and loss of identity in which the self seems
The lawful definition is the transfer of the ownership of property rights.4
It can be gathered then that alienation broadly speaking is a state or
experience of estrangement or loss of oneself. Furthermore, a pertinent
question arises, what is this estrangement from? I aim to answer this and to
provide a deeper understanding of alienation with the use of Marxist literature
and commentaries on it. We have already established, generally speaking, that
to be alienated is to be estranged or in some malaise, this can manifest itself
socially, politically or personally and in many other forms. Therefore to
determine what this estrangement is from, it is essential to understand the
conception of man Marx is using. Marx’s conception of man is one that defines
and distinguishes itself from other animals based on the human capacity of
consciousness, autonomy and the ability to be productive. Generally speaking
this is what Marx characterized as human nature. The essence of a person or the
ability to be in control of ones own activities, fundamentally to be the
initiator of the historical process.5
Therefore by definition, alienation is the loss or forfeiture of ones own
ability to be the initiator of the historical process. A loss of control of
one’s own activities, this could manifest itself as a feeling of helplessness
as such. This can be better understood within Marx’s historical materialism,
for Marx men are products of circumstances and upbringing but fundamentally men
themselves determine these circumstances.6
This coincidence of changing circumstances and human activity can be rationally
understood as the revolutionizing process. However this suggests that society
is divided into two parts, of which one is above society.7
I will explore this further later.


I think it warranted investigating more
thoroughly Marx’s conception of man. Petrovic provides a detailed analysis
using Marx’s own writings engaging on this issue. Firstly man differs with
animals as he has a human nature in general and one modified in each historical
In Capital Marx criticizes bourgeoisie society because in it universal human
nature cannot express itself, he explains ‘a general or a banker plays a great
part, but mere man man as man, on the other hand, a very shabby part’.9
In regards to other conceptions of man, such as the traditional idea that man
is a rational being or the positivistic argument that man is an instinctive
being, which according to Scheler falls into three sub sections one of which
the ‘Marxist’ argues that man is determined by his impulse for food.10
This obviously ignoring the fact that Marx himself writes that animals only
produce under the compulsion for direct physical need whereas man only truly
produces in freedom from such need.11
Man for Marx is not the sum of his spheres (economic, political, moral,
artistic etc) such as the traditional conception of man as rational. What makes
man a man is not his main sphere but his whole way of being, the general structure
of his relationship toward the world and himself. This way of being is defined
as Praxis by Marx. Praxis is human activity, mans work upon the objective world
is where man proves himself as a species being. This production is his active
species life. By means of it nature appears as his work and his reality.12
Praxis as a universal-creative self-creative activity contains its
determination as a free, conscious activity. From this the conception of man as
a social history also follows. If man is a creative-self creative being that
constantly creates and changes himself and his world, he is necessarily not
always the same. Therefore history is not just man changing nature and thus the
world around him, it is the constant self-creation of man by human labour.13
Moreover if man’s essence is a universal-creative self-creative activity he
must never cease it otherwise he will cease being a man. This can be broadly categorized
as being the initiator of the historical process and furthermore as will be
shown in more detail in the following paragraphs, alienation is the loss of
Praxis, of being the initiator of the historical process and thus achieving

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Marx most rigorously explores this loss of realization and inability
to be the initiator of the historical process in his analysis of labour. The
alienated situation of the worker under capitalism is divided into four main
aspects. I shall explore each in detail. Firstly, the worker is related to the
product of his labour as an alien object. The object does not belong to him, it
dominates him and only serves to increase his poverty. The product of labour is
the objectification of labour.14
The worker becomes the slave of his object, first he receives an object of his labor,
i.e. work and secondly he receives the means of physical subsistence. He exists
as a worker first then as a physical entity. Only as a worker he maintains
himself as a physical subject and only as a physical subject he is a worker.
The more the worker externalizes himself in his work, the more powerful the
alien, the poorer the worker becomes in his inner life, the less he retains of
himself.15 Labours
product as such is alienation made material, it epitomizes his loss of self and
highlights the process of labours alienation. The second aspect is that labours
alienation also appears in the process of production. The worker is not at home
in his work, it does not affirm him. He see’s it as a way of satisfying other
The essential relationship of labour is the relationship of the worker to
The act of production is active alienation. As the product of labour is
alienated from the worker then the act of production is therefore the act of
This relation of the worker to the action of production is seen as
self-estrangement. Religion, state, family, law, morality, science and art are
only particular forms of production and fall under its general rule. The positive
abolition of private property and the appropriation of human life is therefore
the positive abolition of all alienation.19
The third aspect is that alienated labour succeeds at alienating man from his
species. Spices life, productive life, life creating life, turns into a mere
means of sustaining the workers individual existence, thus man is alienated
from his fellow man.20
This is exemplified in an extensive passage from the philosophic and economic
manuscripts of 1844, as follows,


“Man produces for himself and not for men as
a species. Production is not a production of men for men. Thus none are in a
position to enjoy the product of another. Neither can exchange be a mediating
movement which confirms that my product is for you, because it is an objectification
of your own essence, your need. Human essence doesn’t link production of men.
As a man you have a human relationship to my product, you have a need for my
product. But your need is powerless with regard to my product. This means that
your essence, which intrinsically has a relationship with my product, does not
acquire power and property over my product. The power and peculiarity of human
essence is not recognized in my production, They are a fetter that makes you
depend on me because they manouvere you into a position of dependence on my


As it can be seen from the above passage,
production and exchange alienate man from his species being. As Marx states
“your need is powerless with regard to my product” is an exemplification of the
rejection of the right of human essence and of our species being. This is a
fundamental critique of the capitalist system in itself. Essentially, the
capitalist system is antithetical to the rights of our human essence as it
rejects the notion that all humankind can have power and property over a
product. It produces dependencies for profit and gain. The fourth aspect
relates to nature, as it is itself alienated from man, who thus loses his own
inorganic body.22 Nature
according to Marx is man’s inorganic body; this is because nature provides for
man’s direct means of life and the material, object and instrument of his life
activity.23 Man
is in continuous interchange with nature, his physical and spiritual life is
linked to nature. Furthermore man is nature for he is a part of nature. Nature
also constitutes a part of mans consciousness; plants, stones, air and light
act as his spiritual nourishment and partly as objects of natural science and
Therefore as nature is demented and appropriated by man he is destroying his
spiritual nourishment, he thus becomes poorer in his inner self. In addition to
this I believe it essential to understand what constitutes the alienation of
labour. According to Marx, labour is external to the worker, it does not belong
to his essential being furthermore in his work he does not affirm himself but
rather denies himself.25
Moreover labour is not voluntary but coerced, it is forced labour. It is
therefore not a satisfaction of a need but a means of satisfying needs external
to it. The external character of labour for workers appears in the fact that it
belongs to someone else, the labour of a worker does not belong to him thus it
is a loss of self.26
This is loss of self fundamentally derives itself from the fact that labour
does not affirm the worker but is merely a means for the worker to satisfy
needs outside of work, therefore the worker does not feel himself at work,
additionally the fact that the labour of a worker belongs to someone else
highlights how the fundamental relationship of capitalist production is
antithetical to affirming human essence and therefore continuously producing
alienated workers.


Having shown the alienated situation of the
worker under capitalism in its four main forms I will now study the Marxist
idea of the economic base and its relationship with the superstructure and how
this relates to the permeation of alienation. I will also look more closely at
commentaries by scholars on alienation, contrasting and developing their
thoughts. Broadly speaking the base-superstructure model is divided into two
parts, the means of production and relations of production form the base and
everything that is not directly to do with production, such as ideology forms
the superstructure. Marx provides his most detailed account of his
base-superstructure model of human society in the preface to A Contribution to
the Critique of Political Economy. He states,


“In the social production which men carry on
they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of
their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of
development of their material powers of production. The totality of these
relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society – the
real foundation, on which legal and political superstructures arise and to
which definite forms of social consciousness correspond.”27


These relations of production, which are in
fact the relations of people to each other in correspondence to the material
conditions of that time, form the base of human society. From which political
society emerges. What needs to be understood however is these relations are
always in a state of dynamic process, containing contradictions and variations.28
Furthermore from this political society, “definite forms of social
consciousness correspond”.29
Therefore social consciousness is contingent on the relations of production and
the material powers of production, this is expanded further.


“The mode of
production of material life determines the general character of the social,
political, and spiritual process of life…(Men’s) social being determines their consciousness”30


This highlights
Marx’s conception of man and how our human consciousness develops. Man is
social but the specific social reality he inhabits or is subject to determines
his consciousness. Furthermore Marx goes on to elaborate how at some stage the
material forces of production in society come into conflict with existing
relations of production, leading to social revolution. A change of the economic
base of society leads to the transformation of the superstructure, i.e. the
political society.31
This relationship between the base and superstructure is not as clear-cut as
one may assume. The relationship is reciprocal; the base only determines the
superstructure in the last instance.32
This model of human society enables one to understand how Marx conceptualized
the world and thus allows for a greater understanding of his work. The
base-superstructure model highlights how the process of alienation occurs and
permeates throughout society. It suggests that the relations of production that
correspond to the material powers of production which form the base of society
are the root cause of alienation. These relations of production lead to a loss
of self of the worker as highlighted previously, furthermore these relations
inform the superstructure and therefore the ideology of capitalist society
which suggests that the superstructure extends and perpetuates alienation. I
will now examine in more detail commentaries by scholars.


2 Sayers Marx and Alienation. 1.

3 Google dictionary


5 McLellan, The thought of Karl Marx. 118.

6 Karl Marx Thesis on Fuererbach

7 Ibid

8 Modern Interpretations of Marx 24

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid

11 Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man. 102.

12 Modern interpretations of Marx 26.

13 Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man, 139.

14 Philosophic manuscripts 108

15 Karl Marx selected writings 78.

16 McLellan The thought of Karl Marx 119.

17 Manuscripts 110

18 Ibid.

19 McLellan 124 (manucripts. 89)

20 The thought of Karl Marx 119

21 McLellan 125 (manuscripts 119)

22 Mclellan the thought of Karl Marx 119.

23 1844 Manuscripts 112.

24 Ibid

25 Manuscripts 1844 110.

26 Ibid. 111

27 Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. 20.

28 Williams,
Raymond (November–December 1973). “Base and superstructure in
Marxist cultural theory”. New Left Review. New Left
Review. I (82).

29 Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. 20.

30 Ibid

31 Ibid

32 Dictionary of the Social Sciences. Craig Calhoun